A new season means renewed hope for all 120 Division I FBS teams; some are justified in their optimism for the coming season, some are not. In Head Coach Rich Ellerson’s first season in charge for the Black Knights, Army posted a 5-7 record which was a two-win improvement over the 3-9 mark the team posted in 2008. Five wins is the most Army has posted since their 10-2 record in 1996, which included a trip to the Independence Bowl. With a year of experience under Ellerson’s system and plenty of returning starters (seven on offense, eight on defense), Army seems poised to have a breakout season this year. Can the Black Knights earn their first bowl trip since that 1996 team? Returning talent and a favorable schedule has set the stage for a special season in West Point.
Army’s triple-option offense put up big numbers on the ground in 2009, ranking 16th nationally in rushing yardage. The biggest area of necessary improvement for the Army offense in 2010 is red zone efficiency. For all the production Army had rushing, they failed to put many points on the board. It is not expected for triple-option offenses to light up the scoreboard the way other styles can, but Army ranked 117th in the country with 15.3 points per game. The offense only scored 18 touchdowns during the season. In 35 trips to the redone the Black Knights scored only 16 times, which ranked 93rd nationally. At times it seemed as though the Army offense became too tempted by Villanueva’s size advantage near the end zone, continually throwing fades instead of relying on their rushing attack to put points on the board. With a new threat at fullback and an experienced offensive line, expect Army to utilize its rushing attack near the end zone this season.
Sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman looks to improve on a solid freshman campaign during which he rushed for 706 yards and 5 touchdowns in addition to 637 yards and 3 touchdowns passing. Senior slotback Patrick Mealy also returns, coming off a year where he added 673 yards and 3 touchdowns to the Army offense. The other slotback position opposite Mealy is a wide-open competition due to Jameson Carter leaving the team after spring practice. Currently it is a four man race, with sophomores Malcolm Brown and Brian Cobbs battling for the spot as well as incoming freshmen Raymond Maples and Jon Crucetti. After the most recent scrimmage held Saturday, it looks like the battle has narrowed to Brown and Cobbs, with Maples likely to be third. Heading into preseason practice Malcolm Brown should be considered the favorite to win the starting nod. Brown impressed the staff in preseason camp as a freshman last year, but an ankle injury was a major setback and he did not see the field until Army’s matchup with Tulane. Brown started the next week in a win over Vanderbilt and would start the next four games, finishing fifth on the team in rushing yards and attempts. An addition to the offense that has created a considerable amount of excitement for Army fans is fullback Jared Hassin. Hassin transferred to West Point after starting his academic career at Air Force. At 6-3 235 pounds, Hassin offers size, strength and speed to the Army rushing attack. His arrival caused last season’s starting fullback, Kingsley Ehie, to be moved to the defensive side of the ball. Entering his sophomore year, Hassin seems poised to team with fellow sophomore Trent Steelman to offer a potent rushing attack for Army for years to come.
Army’s post-spring depth chart along the offensive line features four seniors in the starting lineup: left tackle Anees Merzi, center Zach Peterson, right guard Seth Reed, and right tackle Jason Johnson. Sophomore Frank Allen is slated to start at left guard. Of this group the player to highlight is center Zach Peterson. Peterson was named to Phil Steele’s College Football Preview Second Team following his junior season, and has been named to Phil Steele’s 2010 Preseason All-Independent First Team this year.
Though used sparingly, an effective passing attack can take a triple-option team to the next level offensively. This is where Army’s offense took its biggest hit, losing Alejandro Villanueva and Damion Hunter from its receiving corps. Villanueva had 34 receptions for 522 yards and 5 touchdowns. His size created matchup issues for defenses, as the former defensive end and offensive lineman was much bigger than the defenders assigned to cover him. Army also loses its second receiver Damion Hunter, who added 26 catches for 162 yards. The third-leading receiver on the 2009 team, Jameson Carter, was slated to move to slotback this year but has left the team. Army returns two wide receivers who combined for five catches last season. Juniors Austin Barr and Davyd Brooks are currently penciled in to start for the Black Knights. Brooks made a big splash during the Saturday scrimmage when he caught a 61-yard touchdown pass from Trent Steelman that displayed his big-play potential.
When Army posted a 10-2 record in 1996, it was utilizing the “Desert Swarm” defense that Ellerson helped then-Head Coach Bob Sutton install. Ellerson first designed the defense in Arizona, and has taken it with him to every stop in his coaching career since. In Ellerson’s first season taking over the reins of the team the new scheme was effective, greatly improving the Army defense. Last season, the Army defense ranked 16th overall and was a strong point on the team. The scheme is effective at overcoming differences in size, and size is something that the Black Knights defense lacks.
Josh McNary returns for his senior year after posting 12.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss from the position Army labels the “Quick”, essentially a rush defensive end. McNary’s 12.5 sacks last season are an Army single-season record. He also holds the Army single game record (4.0) and the career sacks record (18.0). After being selected to three All-America teams last season, McNary has been selected to two Preseason All-America teams and Phil Steele’s 2010 Preseason All-Independent First Team. He has also been named to the 2010 Lott Trophy and Nagurski Trophy preseason watch lists. Senior Mike Gann will start at defensive tackle for the Black Knights but also expect junior Chris Swain to see some time after an impressive showing in the Spring Game. Marcus Hilton will start at defensive end after registering 27 tackles last season.
Sophomore Nate Combs was one of the biggest surprises for Army in the spring, and he is slated to start as a linebacker. Combs is very versatile and can play multiple positions within the defense. Stephen Anderson, Andrew Rodriguez and Steve Erzinger round out the linebacking corps. Anderson is one of the leaders of the team on and off the field and returns from a season-ending knee injury that also kept him out of spring practice. Anderson was named to Phil Steele’s 2010 Preseason All-Independent First Team last season, and has been selected to the team again this year. Andrew Rodriguez led the team with 85 tackles last fall. Rodriguez was named to ESPN The Magazine’s Football Academic All District 1 Team as well as Phil Steele’s 2010 Preseason All-Independent First Team. Steve Erzinger started as a sophomore last season and ranked third on the team with 71 tackles. He was also named to Phil Steele’s 2010 Preseason All-Independent First Team.
The Army secondary boasts four seniors and a junior for four spots. At corner, junior Antuan Aaron returns at cornerback after appearing in all 24 contests his first two seasons, starting all 12 last year and six games in 2008. Richard King will start opposite Aaron after missing 2009 due to injury. Seniors Jordan Trimble and Donnie Dixon enter preseason practice as “co-starters” at one of the safety spots. The defense is rounded out by free safety Donovan Travis. Travis intercepted four passes last season, giving him six for his career which ranks him 24th on Army’s all-time list.
Alex Carlton returns as the favorite to be the starting kicker when Army opens against Eastern Michigan. Matt Campbell is expected to handle kickoffs and compete with Carlton for the spot as starting kicker. Jonathan Bulls will be the starting punter. Bulls impressed everyone on the practice field when he booted a 68 yard punt that rolled inside the ten yard line during the special teams portion of Army’s Saturday scrimmage. Sophomore defensive back Josh Jackson and junior linebacker Josh Jones shared duties as punt returner. Slotbacks Patrick Mealy and Malcolm Brown were the first-team kick returners. Long snapper Carson Homme also returns as does holder Kolin Walk.
A lot will stay the same for the Black Knights in 2010. There will be stability not only in the offensive and defensive schemes, but also the players penciled-in to start for Army. One thing that will change will be the Army uniforms. Nike has updated the Army uniforms and added an alternate away uniform with white pants as opposed to the traditional gold pants look. Army has also introduced a “Dress Gray” uniform that the team will wear against Air Force on November 6th. Check out the new look here.
Army fans have a lot to look forward to in 2010 with a bowl bid definitely within reach. The Black Knights are confident and have high hopes heading into the new season. Army opens up in Ypsilanti, Michigan against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at 7 p.m. on September 4th. In the next post I will take an in-depth look at Army’s schedule for 2010 and make my prediction on the final record for the Black Knights in 2010.
About the Author
Written by Donald Lappe
Senior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Double Major in Media & Society and United States History. Also writing for TapouT Magazine and MMA Worldwide Magazine.